- Written by T. M. LUHRMANN, The New York Times, April 13, 2013
IT had never occurred to me to think of God as a therapist when I began to spend time, 10 years ago, at an evangelical church in Chicago. Like many secular observers, I was interested in the fact that people like me seemed to experience reality in a fundamentally different manner. I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.
One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.
Does it work? In my own research, the more people affirmed, “I feel God’s love for me, directly,” the less stressed and lonely they were and the fewer psychiatric symptoms they reported.
More strikingly, I saw that the church implicitly invited people to treat God like an actual therapist. In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.
“It’s just like talking to a therapist,” one woman told me, “especially in the beginning, when you’re revealing things that are deep in your heart and deep in your soul, the things that have been pushed down and denied.” The church encourages people to bring those conversations with God into their prayer group and to share their struggles with others, who are expected to respond with love, respect and compassion.
You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life. The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain. “God doesn’t want to be analyzed,” one woman explained to me. “He wants your love.”
A young man — a kind man with two adorable children and a loving wife — died unexpectedly in one of the churches where I spent time. When the pastor spoke in church the following Sunday, he did not try to explain the death. Instead, he told the church to experience God as present. “This is a difficult philosophical issue for Christians,” he said. “We who believe in a loving, personal God who created the earth and can intervene at any time — we have this problem.” His answer? “Creation is beautiful but it is not safe.” He called our everyday reality “broken.” What should you do? Get to know God. “Learn to hang out with him now.”
I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person. That may help to explain why it is evangelical Christianity that has grown so much in the last 40 years.
It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people. But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation.
This may seem theologically simple-minded — indeed, even some evangelical Christians find it so. But there are lots of ways to explain things in this sophisticated, scientifically aware society. What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness. Tragedy, and prayers that apparently go unanswered, can actually strengthen believers’ sense of a bond with God. That’s when they feel that they most need Him.
T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” is a guest columnist.
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